I am reading a book called The Whole Five Feet: What the Great Books Taught Me About Life, Death and Pretty Much Everything Else by Christopher Beha. I am enjoying it so far, but of course I am a terrible sucker for books about the discovery and impact of books in people’s lives. Reading such accounts throws me into sweet reveries about my own encounters with books and the enticing prospect of more of the same. Books are personal to me and I am emotionally moved by first-hand descriptions of how others work through the person/book dialectic. Some of my own reading experiences have left me limping like Jacob after wrestling with the angel by the river Jabbok, but as with Jacob, also opened me up to new possibilities of living I had never before imagined or sought.
Beha’s book describes the author’s ambition to work through, in a single year, the entire Harvard Classics, the so-called “Five Foot Shelf of Books.” That collection curiously opens with Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography, which, as anyone who has looked at it knows, is openly didactic, full of home-spun, practical advice for living better. It set me to wonder to what extent Plato’s Republic could be classified as a “self-improvement” book. Has it been such in my own life?
My discovery of it was pure chance. I was in my senior year of college, a computer engineering major at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. There was a used bookstore just down the street from where I lived called “The Reader’s Corner” — it’s still there I think. I sometimes went by at night (in keeping with my usual pattern of avoiding studying what I was supposed to be studying) when the store was closed, to look over a weather-worn collection of unclassified books that sat outside the store with a hand-drawn sign that said “free.” The books were either badly damaged or more often, about subjects that no longer had applicability to the age, like instruction guides to software or equipment no longer current. One night I found a book in the damaged category, torn almost in two along the spine with brittle yellowed pages. It was called “How to Read a Book” by Mortimer Adler. I snatched it up, went back to my dormitory and began reading. It changed the direction of my life.
Adler’s book was both a exhortation toward a life of serious reading and also a methodology for accomplishing the same. The latter part, the method, didn’t really sink in, although I did learn a few things that have stuck with me: the value of studying the Table of Contents and other clues to the book’s structure, the importance of rereading a book, etc. But it was the exhortation itself, the book’s summons to a deep seriousness in one’s reading life, that really changed who I am. I responded wholly to that summons and am still traveling the path which that response placed me on almost thirty years ago.
The back of the book had a list of “Great Books,” many of which I had never heard of before and only a few of which I had actually bothered previously to read. (I am happy to report that my old friend Robinson Crusoe did make the cut.) The list excited me, as a view toward a ridge of Darien Peaks might. I decided for some reason, perhaps because of Adler’s constant reference to it, to start with Plato’s Republic, the Bloom translation. (Next in line were Descartes Discourse on Method and Hobbes’ Leviathan — I don’t remember why.) The Republic was the first book that I ever read seriously and I noticed it coloring everything in the world around me. I have probably read it over thirty times since and it still affects me.
But is it didactic in the sense that much of Franklin’s work is? Well, Plato and Franklin are very different — there are none of the pithy maxims for self-improvement in Plato that characterize the Autobiography or Poor Richard’s Almanac. I suspect that Plato would consider the proverb to be an unsuitable vehicle for penetrating to the the heart of the matter. I do however consider his work to be aimed at self-improvement, just of a kind less like “learning about” a subject and more like “learning into” a form of life. One of the things I am interested in exploring in my book project is what Plato’s preferred method of communication can teach us about what he thought constituted moral knowledge — perhaps this difference between “learning about” and “learning into” that I just articulated. But I am curious — why *not* straightforward moral exhortation and pithy maxims?